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Ask Malia: He Only Naps In My Arms

Hi Malia,

My 5-month-old son Brayden doesn’t nap much, and he refuses to nap in his crib. He’ll only sleep while I’m holding him and when I try to put him down, he screams. Right now he’s only napping for about 30 minutes at a time, and he’s exhausted by the end of the day. At night, he sleeps in his crib just fine. So it’s just the naps that are a struggle. I’d really like to change this pattern. He’s not getting enough napping in and I’m not getting a thing done during the day. Please help!



Hi Kelly,

Holding a baby while he sleeps can be wonderful. Until it isn't. The baby get heavier, naps get shorter, and pretty soon, you'd love to put your little bundle of love down for a few precious minutes so you can shower, load the dishwasher, or pay attention to your other kids.

You’re definitely not alone with this. In fact, it's probably the most common sleep question I get. So many parents end up with a young baby who prefers sleeping while being held (I mean, really...wouldn't you?). Many especially like to nap in someone's arms. Oddly, sleep associations can be different for naps and nighttime. So he might be totally OK with sleeping in his crib at night but give a big fat “no way!” to sleeping there at naptime.

For his naps, Brayden associates sleep with being held, and when you try and put him down, he startles and wakes up. What often happens is a parent will nurse/rock and child to sleep, hold him or her for 5-10 minutes (which tick by very slowly and seem like forever) and then place the child in the crib. The child promptly wakes up and screams. Then the parent repeats the process. This eats up a lot of time, and soon, the entire nap period is over without the child getting a real nap.

Unforuntately, even if he's sleeping in his preferred location (your arms) he's not getting a restful nap. The motion of your body will prevent him from cycling through the stages of sleep effectively, and his sleep won't be as restorative.

The good news is that you can break this pattern and help support his need for longer, more restorative naps. Here’s how:

1. First, make sure his sleeping space is completely black-out dark, as this will help keep him from stirring and awakening while you are working on this process. Also, put a digital clock in there that you can see while you are working on this. It's easy to lose all sense of time when you're in a completely dark room with an infant for what seems like forever.

2. When you put him down for a nap, nurse him to sleep and do whatever you do to get him to sleep. Be sure that you are in his room and that it's dark. You want him to associate his room with sleep.

3. Once he is alseep, hold him for a full 20-25 minutes. This gives him time to cycle through the first stages of sleep and reach the deepest stage of sleep. When he is absolutely deep asleep, his limbs will be slack, his breathing deep and even, and he will be motionless. If he is breathing shallow breaths or making small noises, he's still in a lighter stage of sleep. Wait for the deep sleep.

4. Once he is in the deepest stage of sleep, gently lay him down in his crib. When he is in the deepest stage of sleep, he won't be aware of this transfer, as he would be if you had put him down after only a few minutes. (Again, it's important that the room is dark and quiet, to make it less likely that he will fully awaken if he does stir.) Keep your hands on his back to assure him of your presence and to make the transition from your body to the crib as gradual as possible.

5. Stay with him in the room another 10 minutes to ensure that he will remain asleep. If he does wake at all, you want to be quick to respond by soothing him with patting, rubbing his back, and saying "shhhhhh" in a steady, soothing way before he wakes up fully. You want to avoid picking him up and restarting the process, so only do that if he is screaming and thrashing for more than a minute or two.

6. Stay with step 4 for all naps over a couple of days, until you are confident that you're able to transfer him to his crib after about 20 minutes of holding. Continue staying with him for another 10-15 minutes to ensure that he's asleep.

7. Once you've got the hang of this step, begin to shave minutes off the time you've been holding him before putting him down in his crib. So if you've been holding him 20 minutes before putting him down, try holding for just 18 minutes. Then 16. Then 14. Stay at each stage for a day or two before moving on. What you are doing is getting him used to being put down in progressively lighter and lighter stages of sleep. Soon you will be putting him down in a light stage of sleep, and soothing him with touch and your voice if he stirs. Then, as you move on, eventually you will be putting him down drowsy. Eventually you will be able to put him down drowsy and walk out, maybe with a bit of patting or reassurance, and then you're done.

This process seems cumbersome, but it is very effective if you stay the course. You may get "stuck" at certain stages, (like, you can't seem to put him down with any fewer than 15 minutes of holding) but just stay with it and you will progress. Just like with anything else, progress sometimes comes in fits and starts. I estimate the entire process will take you about 2-3 weeks if you stick with it! Good luck, and enjoy all the free time you'll have on your hands very soon.

I’m an award-winning parenting and health journalist, sleep coach, and mom of three. My articles about sleep, health, and parenting appear regularly in over 90 national and regional magazines and on television, and I've been featured by YAHOO Shine, MSN Health, the TODAY Show, and TODAY Moms. Can I help you? Subscribe to The Well Rested Family to have sleep news, tips, and tactics delivered to your inbox or feed reader by clicking here.

I offer sleep coaching on call for tired parents ready to make a change. Take the first step by booking your session here.

Need more sleep? My e-book Ready, Set, Sleep: 50 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep So You Can Sleep Too is chock-full of mom-tested solutions to help babies and toddlers start sleeping well, tonight!

My newest e-book Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers & Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades is available now!

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Reader Comments (3)

Any additional tips if you are trying this process with a toddler?

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Jennifer, good question. No, you don't need to change the process for a toddler. This process can be used to help correct nearly any sleep association, but it is especially helpful for children who like to be held/carried/rocked to sleep or who don't like falling asleep in their bed. I had a mom use this same process to help her son learn to sleep without her laying next to him in bed, and he was almost 2 years old.

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMalia

Boy, could I have used this advice 4-5 months ago. Luckily we figured out our own way out of the not-napping habit, but this would have really been useful for us!

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAryn

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